September 20- October 20th 2021
It was fig season when we arrived to Hrvoji. A few years ago, I couldn’t have found Slovenia on a map, and definitely not this village of 15 people. As a country, it is tiny, and can be found tucked between Italy, Croatia, Austria, and Hungary. It is smaller than the state of Vermont, and is still 60% forest– a tiny piece of the Mediterranean Sea on one side and the Julian Alps on the other.
To me, it is right at the cultural and environmental border of Northern and Southern Europe (potato and tomato Europe as we lovingly call them) and Eastern and Western Europe. There are only 2 million people in the world that speak Slovenian– less than the population of the city of Madrid– all of which make it a perfect place to get lost for a while.
Slovenia only became a country in 1991, which is the same year I was born, and many people now feel their heritage is a mixture of various Balkan influences rather than specifically Slovenian. A country that is only 30 years old obviously has many members who still remember living a different life in a different place called Yugoslavia, and remember witnessing the war, the crumbling, and rebirth thereafter.
Often, people drive straight through this magical place on their trips between Venice and Croatia, but thanks to a tip from a good friend who BIKED through Europe a few years ago, we visited it in 2019 and fell in love. Ever since, we’ve dreamed of coming back and staying for a while. This is how we found Sunny Hill.
With 3 full-time members, one aspiring member, two long-term occupants, and 4 volunteers (including us), Sunny Hill was a small and gentle community to start off our exploration into this new lifestyle. They have a huge permaculture garden, 2 dogs, 2 cats, 11 goats, 15 chickens, and a very inspiring off-grid water system, which is their proudest feature.
History and Location
This little community is only 7 years old, perched indeed atop a quiet hill with lots of sunlight. The sun rises over the rolling, characteristically Slovenian mountains in the east, and falls dramatically over the Adriatic Sea to the west each night. From the top of the hill, you can see 3 countries. The city of Trieste in Italy in the distance to the north, Slovenia of course, and Croatia, which is just right down the road.
All the members of Sunny Hill share a 3-story house that used to be a rectory– the connected church still standing next door. This also provides for a pretty convenient parking lot that our RV fit into without issue. These days the church is rarely used, but nevertheless, its iconic bell tower chimes each day 2 minutes before noon in the day and 2 minutes before 8 in the evening.
The rectory was in ruins when Nara, Manja, and Maks (the community members) obtained the property in 2014. While living in tents, they painstakingly restored it stone-by-stone with the help of many volunteers and funds raised from various sources. They let the tenents they found stay there, as not to be greedy, so for the first year a swallow lived in their kitchen and to this day, bees still occupy a portion of their 3rd story wall.
Their motto is “luxurious simplicity,” which is an apt term for the way they live. They eat well, drink well, and are in control of their own time, for the most part. They work when they want to, travel when they want to and take much peace and satisfaction from the silence and simplicity around them. It feels extremely private and isolated, but the closest city of Koper is only 30 minutes away.
All 3 core members have part-time or full-time jobs outside of the community– one working for the Slovenian railway system and the other two working for Community organizations such as GEN Europe (Global Eco-village Network,) and ECOLISE (European Network for Community-led initiatives on Climate Change and Sustainability.) They all had previous community experience they brought into Sunny Hill.
Each of them has very distinct personalities (all of which made us feel trusted and welcomed immediately upon arriving). They had their own systems in place, but they communicated immediately that they were also all very open to adapting to change in the event we had ideas we felt would work better than what they were doing.
Despite not having many people, there are not many obligatory scheduling demands here. Everyone has their role to play, but can decide when and how they contribute. They were completely flexible and understanding with our work schedules as we continued to do our external jobs in the mornings. They had community meetings every Monday night.
We came at the very end of summer, so the garden work was winding down already, but preparing preserves for the winter and making sure not to waste any of the food they worked hard to grow was a top priority. Lunch and dinner were shared and collective with a rotating schedule for who cooked, and most of the vegetarian meals were made using ingredients from the Sunny Hill garden. How lovely it was indeed, to go “grocery shopping” in the garden, and find inspiration while walking around and harvesting what was ready. We enjoyed seeing how each person expressed themselves through food, and we almost never had the same meal twice.
We couldn't eat enough of the figs (which are my favorite fruit) during these abundant weeks. Fig season transitioned into mushroom and chestnut season, and we went for a few rounds of foraging walks in the area. The earth gives us what we need.
What we learned/contributed
Ben and I specifically took over some woodworking projects, such as giving 16 sets of wooden shutters on the house a new life by repairing them, sanding them, and oiling them, then updating the communal kitchen from the improvised-but-useful set up they’ve had since the beginning. Ben and Nara worked together to design it using almost entirely found-wood on the property– most notably some antique oak beams that were positively radiant once we gave them a little borax and linseed oil.
I learned how to milk goats here, which are not only useful for food-consumption reasons, but also in helping regenerate the land around the property. Grazing animals are an essential part of a permaculture web, as they are a fossil-fuel free way of mowing grass, and their manure helps regenerate the soil, which will otherwise get depleted over time if you only take out nutrients without putting nutrients back in.
Nara told us a joke about how when the first tractors were brought to Istria (the region where Sunny Hill is located) the farmer asked where the excrement came out. When he was told that tractors “didn’t have any”, he exclaimed that, in that case, they weren’t useful to him. In permaculture, everything has more than one purpose. This used to be common practice back in the day, but now it’s something we have to learn to remember.
Manja and Maks are currently experimenting with making different goat cheeses, yogurts, and dairy products, as they only just took over the goats 6 months ago. The main goat I milked was named Lady Gaga, but I also milked Greta Thunberg once or twice….
Off-grid House Specifications
Sunny Hill has only compost toilets, but their design and implementation was the best I’ve ever seen. Nara prides himself on being a “fecologist” and they came up with a system that does not in any way feel unhygienic or uncomfortable. Liquid and solids are separated, and both are ultimately placed back into the soil to keep the cycle of nutrients healthy and connected.
Sunny Hill covers 80% of their household water needs by collecting rainwater from their roof. This water is filtered through a rough filter and used for dishes and taking showers. Greywater (water that washes down the drain) is once again filtered through reed beds (reed plants, their roots, and small pebbles) to cleanse it so it can be reused to water the garden. None of the water is wasted and none of it leaves the property. Only drinking water comes from an external source, though the rainwater is fine to drink as well.
The house is heated with a wood gasification boiler, which is used to heat both the water and the house itself with firewood. We saw this same method being employed at a campground in the Eifel region of Germany a few months before. It’s incredible effective, and only needs to be refilled about once a day due to the connected hot-water tank (depending on how many people are present.)
When we arrived, Sunny Hill had just hosted an ERASMUS youth exchange of 30 people for 3 weeks. One of the main goals of the community is educating and inspiring people of all ages to connect more with the land and to adopt permaculture concepts into their life.
The day we arrived, they’d lead a local group-walk from the closest town for several hours to draw awareness to the fact that there isn’t any public transportation option on the weekends to the people in these small villages. A week later, they hosted the autumn installment of their workshop called “Four Seasons,” aimed at giving city dwellers a glimpse into off-grid lifestyles at different times of the year.
We really loved our time here. We felt very welcomed and also were pleased that everything was so flexible. We would’ve liked to have a bit more people and a bit more community-oriented activities, but I think we came at a moment where everyone was particularly busy. Thank you to all the Sunny Hill members for your hospitality and accepting us as part of the family for a while.
Click on photos to enlarge.
Here is a short film I made from our time there.